The First U.S. Spacewalk

Ed White’s trip outside, 50 years ago, was exhilarating, improvised, and at times scary.

Ed White, in his element. Back inside the spacecraft, he told McDivitt, “That was the most natural feeling, Jim.” Said his friend, “You looked like you were in your mother’s womb.” (NASA)

Spacewalking was a late addition to the Gemini 4 mission. Not that NASA hadn’t been thinking about it—a “stand-up EVA” had originally been scheduled, whereby the astronauts would open the overhead hatch of their tiny, two-man capsule so that one could poke his head out into the vacuum. But after Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov ventured outside his Voskhod 2 spacecraft in March 1965, NASA added a full spacewalk to Gemini 4.

Engineers rushed to get all the equipment—including a handheld “zip gun” for maneuvering in orbit—ready in time. (A press kit released two weeks before launch said only that a spacewalk was “possible.”) With just days to go, the plan was approved, and on June 3, 1965, 34-year-old Ed White did what no American had so far done: emerge from his spacecraft to float free. The spacewalk lasted just 20 minutes, long enough to demonstrate the feasibility of working outside, and to check off another major milestone in NASA’s race for the moon.

On to Gemini 5

After the spacewalk, the Gemini 4 crew spent another three and a half days in orbit, running experiments on everything from radiation levels in the capsule to photography of the Earth below. More important, they proved that astronauts could return perfectly healthy after a long bout of weightlessness. (Here they’re shown on the rescue ship after an ocean splashdown. White felt strong enough to join in a tug-of-war game with members of the crew.) Despite the glitches—maybe because of them—NASA had learned a few things about spacewalking. As McDivitt told an interviewer decades later, “We would’ve never gotten to the Moon when we did if we’d taken baby steps all the way.”

See a gallery of rare Gemini photos here.


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